Westmeath book place in Leinster final with tight win over Kildare
Westmeath 1-12 Kildare 1-11
Westmeath will contest their second Leinster final on the spin for the first time after surviving a late comeback from Kildare in this semi-final which only came to life in the dying minutes.
There was a historic element to the success as it was only the second time that Westmeath had beaten Kildare in nine championship meetings in the Leinster series – their only previous win was achieved in 1960.
Kildare will rue this loss for a long time. Leading by six points after 42 minutes they looked to have one foot in the final only to completely capitulate to their opponents for the remainder of the contest.
Admittedly they can feel aggrieved that a 69th minute goal from substitute Cathal McNally was disallowed by referee Derek O'Mahoney presumably for an alleged foul by midfielder Tommy Moolick who challenged Westmeath goalkeeper Darren Quinn for a high ball. But the TV replays suggest that there was no foul.
But having failed to register any score from 28 minutes of the second half and not scoring from play from the 42nd minute Kildare can hardly complain.
So Westmeath, who were relegated to Division 4 this spring, become the first team from the basement of the League to contest a Leinster final since Dublin came from a similarly low position to win Leinster and All-Ireland titles in 1974.
This will only be Westmeath's fifth Leinster final appearance - their previous appearances were in 1931, 1949, 2004 – when they won after a replay – and last season. They will be underdogs again – but that won't bother them in the least.
In front of deserted stands Kildare and Westmeath adopted ultra defensive systems. Francis Boyle operated as the Westmeath sweeper and once they surrendered possession they kept only two players, John Heslin and and Kieran Martin in the Kildare half – the latter was off the field for nearly ten minutes for treatment for a nose bleed.
Kildare, meanwhile, deployed two sweepers Eoin Doyle and Emmet Bolton – a late replacement for Cathal McNally.
The latter was arguably the most influential player on the field in the first half as once his team attacked he provided the overlap on the left flank and most of his side's best moves came down that flank.
Bolton, indeed, was the leading scorer from play in the first half – albeit he hit only two points. For most of the first quarter Kildare's indiscipline in the form of an inability to execute tackles gave Westmeath the initiative on the scoreboard.
John Heslin converted two long range points while Paul Sharry kicked a 45 to give Westmeath a slightly flattering 5-2 advantage after 17 minutes. But as Kildare's marksmanship improve they dominated the second quarter kicking five points with just a single reply from their opponents to lead by a point at the break 0-7 to 0-6.
But in keeping with the non-atmosphere the game itself was played at a fairly pedestrian pace with none of the intensity or hit which characterized the drawn Ulster semi-final between Donegal and Monaghan.
Kildare made an explosive start to the second half scoring 1-2 in the first five minutes. Westmeath goalkeeper Darren Quinn looked uncomfortable when dealing with high balls and he failed to cut out a cross from Neil Flynn. Admittedly he was slightly impeded by his midfield colleague Denis Corroon but the ball fell kindly to Tommy Moolick who found the net.
So Kildare led 1-9 to 0-6 after 42 minutes and given their scoring rate Westmeath's cause looked close to hopeless. But in their moment of crisis their key players, Paul Sharry, John Heslin, Kieran Martin, Australia bound Ray Connellan and James Dolan responded magnificently.
A brace of Connellan points – one straight from a misdirected kick out from Mark Donnellan – set the comeback in motion and incredibly the sides were level after 47 minutes when a brilliant three man move involving substitute Callum McCormack, Heslin and Dolan culminated in the latter keeping his head and finding the net after he was put through.
The decision of Kildare boss Cian O'Neill to withdraw Emmet Bolton in the 50th minute was puzzling and while he cleared his bench none of the moves worked. Equally significant was the black card which full forward Niall Kelly received for pulling down Dolan. Heslin nailed the resultant free to give Westmeath a lead they never subsequently lost.
They had extended their advantage to three points with eight minutes left before Kildare finally stirred themselves in the dying minutes. Even after McNally's disallowed goal they had chances. Having missed a brace earlier Neil Flynn converted two frees – the second after Westmeath's Kevin Maguire was black carded for pulling down Moolick.
There was four minutes of injury time played and Kildare were pressing for an equaliser when Eoin Doyle touched the ball on the ground and Westmeath finally could breath a sigh of relief, though it would have been a travesty of justice had they not prevailed.
Kildare: M Donnellan; P Kelly, D Hyland, O Lyons; J Byrne (0-1), E Doyle, C O'Donoghue; T Moolick (1-0), F Conway (0-1); M O'Flaherty, E O'Flaherty (0-1), E Bolton (0-2); A Tyrrell (0-1), N Kelly (0-1), N Flynn (0-4, 4f). Subs: C McNally for Tyrrell 45m; K Murnaghan for Bolton 50m; C Healy for Kelly (BC) 55m; C Fitzpatrick for O'Donoghue 56m, E Callaghan for E O'Flaherty 60m; R Houlihan for J Byrne 68m;
Westmeath: D Quinn; J Gonoud, K Maguire; K Daly; J Dolan (1-0), A Stone, F Boyle; G Egan, D Corroon; D Lynch, P Sharry (0-3, 1 45), R Connellan; K Martin (0-2), J Heslin (0-4, 4f), J Connellan (0-2). Subs: C McCormack (0-1) for Stone 48m; J Egan for J Connellan 56m;R Foley for R Connellan 63m, R Gorman for Maguire 74m;
Referee: Derek O'Mahoney (Tipperary)